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ALDO LEOPOLD

Aldo Leopold Elementary School, pictured in October 2015, is located at 2602 Post Road.

Some parents and community partners at Aldo Leopold Elementary are upset with how the Madison Metropolitan School District chose a new principal for Leopold, one of two of MMSD’s Community Schools.

The Community School model emphasizes parent, student and community involvement in identifying school issues and working together to address them. Some criticized the speed and lack of collaboration in the principal hiring process as counter to that idea.

On April 9, Leopold’s current principal Karine Sloan, who was not available for comment for this story, sent an email to parents announcing she was stepping down at the end of the school year to spend more time with her family.

An hour later, MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham sent another message to parents informing them that she was “considering Leopold for a strategic placement.” The next day, April 10, Cheatham attended Leopold’s parent-family organization meeting to provide more information about next steps.

Strategic placement is an alternative to the traditional hiring and interview process where the superintendent uses her authority to fill a principal vacancy with an internal candidate who she feels would be a good fit.

MMSD officials said this process has been used about five times during Cheatham's tenure for about 24 vacant principal positions since 2013. In Cheatham's email to Leopold parents, she described the strategic placement process and told them that the candidate would go before a panel comprised of school staff, parents and other community partners who would “interview the candidate for placement and provide (Cheatham) with a summary of strengths and areas of growth.”

But some Leopold parents, including one of the three who served on the 12-person panel, expressed disappointment in the process.

Rosario Ramirez, the parent of a recent Leopold graduate and a current student, joined Leopold’s Parent Family Organization earlier this year and was invited to participate in the community panel. Ramirez, who spoke with the Cap Times via an interpreter because English is not her first language, called the process “rushed.”

The community panel convened the week after Sloan and Cheatham’s announcements. The incoming principal, Peg Keeler, the current principal of Van Hise Elementary, sent a letter to parents on April 24 announcing her excitement to start at Leopold in July. Keeler has 29 years of experience as an MMSD special education teacher, instructional coach and school leader.

Ramirez also said the panelists were not allowed to ask their own questions and were given pre-made questionnaires to use when interviewing the candidate. She said panelists were not allowed to keep the questionnaires.

“There was no point of going to the meeting and participating,” Ramirez said. “They already made their decision.”

In an interview with the Cap Times, Cheatham confirmed the pre-made questionnaires but said community panels can “modify, adapt, add and subtract” from them. MMSD denied the Cap Times a copy of the original questionnaire, citing the need to keep them confidential to protect the integrity of the hiring process. The district also refused to share any questions produced during the panel that were unique to Leopold.

Cheatham did not attend the panel, but chief of elementary schools Nancy Hanks did.

"At Leopold, we're focused on a strong transition, and the panel's feedback will also be important in shaping (Keeler's) entry into the role and her work going forward," Hanks said in a statement.

Although both Hanks and Cheatham expressed confidence in Keeler's ability to lead Leopold, Ramirez is concerned that she does not speak Spanish and comes from a school that is not as diverse.

With 729 students, Leopold is the largest elementary school in the district and more than 77 percent of the kids are students of color. Van Hise has an enrollment of 408 kids, 23 percent of whom are students of color. Over 40 percent of Leopold students are English language learners compared to 25 percent at Van Hise.

Lee Hayes, a Leopold parent on the PFO and the Community Schools development manager at the Foundation for Madison Public Schools, said she was “shocked” by the small size and lack of diversity on the community panel, considering the school’s demographics.

“Twelve people on a panel with only three parents… how is that representative of our community?” she said.

Hayes said she respects Cheatham’s judgment but believes the district should have been more considerate of Leopold’s status as a Community School.

“Something that was really highlighted to me during this principal hiring process was, once again, central office telling our school what we need,” Hayes said. “As parents, students, community stakeholders who’ve been involved… we all want to have a say in what we need.”

“I didn't get that out of this process,” Hayes said. “I don't understand why at a Community School, of all locations, you would choose to have that sort of fast-track timeline and special placement options without communicating with everybody who will be affected by such a monumental change.”

Leopold, along with Mendota Elementary School on Madison’s north side, is entering its third year as a Community School, a model MMSD describes as “a welcoming and inclusive place that builds on the assets of the community to help serve the identified needs of the students, families and community through well integrated and coordinated, strategic partnerships.”

Cheatham said the feedback was valid.

“I'm learning more and more about the tenets of the Community School model and how to execute on those tenets here in Madison,” she said. “I think that the feedback about principal selection in the context of the Community Schools (is) legitimate and something I really want to take into consideration in the future.”

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As of last month, the Community Schools initiative is one of the district’s “priority actions” for the 2018-2019 school year and the program is set to expand to two more schools this fall.

In March, the Madison School Board approved $95,000 to partially fund two coordinators for the new sites. MMSD is asking the Madison School Board to allocate an additional $202,000 to the Community Schools budget for the upcoming school year to pay for more staff and programmatic funds.

The proposal also includes $67,000 for staff training in a community engagement program called Families and Schools Together, or FAST.

Samantha Clausen-Ruppert, who was Leopold’s Community Schools coordinator up until the end of February, said the way the district handled hiring Sloan’s replacement is indicative of a disconnect between the spirit of the Community Schools model and how the program is actually being implemented in MMSD.

“I was really excited about Community Schools, and I still am… but I honestly think that there's a disconnect between what a Community School is — the essence of family engagement, a real shift in culture, climate, beliefs in a school that is collaborative, inclusive and working together with families… and the way I saw Community Schools functioning,” she said.

Clausen-Ruppert said since her departure, the Community Schools collaborative at Leopold — that consists of parents, staff and community partners — has not met.

Nichelle Nichols, who heads the Family, Youth and Community Engagement Department that oversees Community Schools, said the district does not plan to hire Clausen-Ruppert’s replacement by the end of the school year.

Hayes, Clausen-Ruppert and Ramirez all said Sloan’s intent to resign has been an open secret since December, so there was enough time to engage the community to find a replacement.

In an email to the Cap Times, MMSD spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson said Sloan’s formal decision and announcement to resign both happened on April 9 and principal hiring processes usually begin in the spring.

Clausen-Ruppert, Hayes and other parents sent a letter to the Madison School Board last Friday expressing their concerns about the process.

“I don't understand why (Sloan’s departure) wasn't brought to the community right away and leveraged as an opportunity for the school district to say, ‘Hey, you one of two pilot (community) schools where we're trying to show how we do business in a new strategic way that meets the needs of our students and families … we're going to invite you to participate in this process,” Hayes said.

“That's what I would've liked to hear.”